AIO Reviews on Temporarily Irregular Schedule

Hi, faithful readers. At the moment I’m in the middle of a move as well as starting a new job, and while I can still find time to write, my regular schedule has been thrown wildly off. I do not want to pause the reviews until things settle down (’cause let’s be honest, they won’t for a while) so instead I’ve given myself permission to post irregularly over the summer. My plan is to still average a review every couple of weeks, but it will be posted when it’s posted. Hopefully in the fall I will be able to resume some kind of regular day and time.

Sorry for the change, and I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer!

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How Emotions Are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

How Emotions Are Made.jpg

What It’s About

A new look at the structure of the brain, the constructs of society, and how those two combine to create the experiences we call “emotion.”

Why I Think You’d Like It

Every page got my mental wheels spinning. I thought her merger of social constructionism and neurology had interesting potential, but I had so many questions about what exactly she meant and how she dealt with some of the research that contradicted her. She dealt with them, in ways that not only answered my questions, but opened up new, exciting implications.

One of the theories she contradicts is Paul Ekman’s famous categorization of emotions and facial expressions. That’s the one that has gotten a lot of attention from the show Lie to Me and the Pixar film Inside Out. She not only provides solid counterevidence, but repeats the experiments he used to develop his theory, and lays out the flaws in his methodology. For people who aren’t already massive geeks on the topic; he claimed to demonstrate that even humans in highly isolated cultures divide cultures into variations on happiness, sadness, anger, disgust and surprise. He also said that people from any culture can readily identify the corresponding expressions. What Lisa Feldman Barrett discovered, in repeating these experiments, was that the researchers framed the studies in such a way that they were teaching their subjects Westernized categories of emotion as the experiments were performed.

That chapter alone is worth reading, because of how well it educates people about not only the interplay of emotions and culture, but the scientific method and the importance of critical thinking. I think that is especially important right now, when so many people are willing to cherry pick the studies they want. When experiments contradict, and they often do on the borders of our understanding, you do sometimes need to choose which ones to believe. But you can’t do that effectively without understanding why scientific studies often disagree, and how to compare methods to see which result is more likely to be correct.

The book also talks about social constructions not as illusions, but as realities. So often, social construct is treated as synonymous with “fake” or “insignificant,” but in truth social constructs are a natural part of how our brains work. They have implications for our lives and our ability to understand the world around us. She discusses them in a way that I think is productive and enlightening, that allows for both criticism and appreciation of how cultures affect our understanding of even our own minds.

All that content is impressive, and what’s more impressive is how Lisa Feldman Barrett fits it all in while still giving us a fun read. She has a tone that is intelligent but warm conversational, and relies more on practical examples than technical jargon. When she has to include more scientific language, she explains it in a way that is highly accessible, without making you feel like you’re being talked down to.

I went ahead and bought a copy because I knew I’d want multiple readings to process all the good stuff that’s in here. I don’t know if she has cracked the puzzle or not, but I know she gave me great ideas to mull over, and important questions to ask. When it comes to these kinds of topics, that’s the best you could possibly ask for.

Content Warnings

You’re good.

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half

What It’s About

The misadventures and comic reflections of a beautiful person who is still figuring out how to get her life together.

Why I Think You’d Like It

It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It began as a sort of half blog half webcomic-with-terrible-art. But terrible in a good way. Even though the shapes and proportions are all wrong and weird, there’s this wonderful expression in all of her characters. I’m not normally one for stylistically bad cartoons (I can’t even stand The Fairly Odd Parents or South Park) but I unabashedly love the art of Allie Brosh.

Anyways, this comic/blog stopped updating for a long time. When it reactivated, she revealed that she had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. She shared her story in a way that was simultaneously educational, honest and hopeful. And, of course, very funny.

This book includes that story, along with her greatest hits from the blog and a handful of great new stories. Common themes include her childhood, her dogs, and the bizarre chains of events that lead to her making the weirdest life choices. She also touches frequently on depression and ADHD, not in a lecturing, Very Special Episode way (except for the post about her depression, which, as I said before, is fantastic). It’s more just that these are stories about her life, and everyone’s life has recurring supporting characters. Some of those characters are people, like her Mom and her boyfriend and her dogs. Some are more abstract, like her ADHD, depression, anxiety and assorted maladaptive self-loathing thoughts. This is what being a person with mental health baggage is like.

I love her honest lens, her warm humor, and her ability to be vulnerable, in a way that lets us see our own flaws in her, and love ourselves for them just as we love her. If there’s one complaint I can make about this book, it’s the sense that she is still struggling to recognize how special she is. It’s a struggle we all face, and I hope that she, and you, will conquer it.

Content Warnings

Discussion of suicidal ideation.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Godless Heathen: Eugene’s Dilemma

After being fired from Whit’s End, Eugene has gotten a job in the computer program at Campbell County Community College. He is once again being shown around a top secret computer room. Why is this one secret?

Because it houses highly confidential information; academic records, student finances, payment methods, etc. If someone unauthorized got in, they could steal from a student or ruin their career prospects.

Now, see, that’s a legitimate reason to have a secret computer room.

Eugene’s new boss, Mr. Burgermeister, introduces him to Nicholas Adamsworth, an 11 year old computer prodigy. He is also part of a test program, where gifted orphans get to live in colleges instead of being bounced through foster homes and orphanages. He likes working in the college. He doesn’t fit in, but he misfits in a way that works for him.

Eugene himself is an orphaned prodigy. He tells Nicholas that he is impressed, as he himself only began working in advanced academics at age 13. Nicholas, in turn, is thrilled to meet an adult who knows what it’s like to be in college before your voice has cracked. They immediately settle into a nerd mentor/mentee relationship that is everything good and wholesome in this world.

Eugene next meets Richard Maxwell, who is Nicholas’s tutor and supervisor. He ribs Eugene about getting the job he wanted. Eugene doesn’t know how to interpret a joke, and Richard Maxwell doesn’t know how to talk without making them. Let’s just say they get along less well than Eugene and Nicholas do.

On to our next plot point; while doing routine spot checks of the databases, Eugene discovers a series of grades that don’t match up with earlier records. Students are recorded as receiving As in classes that they actually flunked. The mistakes are too numerous and too dramatic to be simple clerical errors.

As Eugene presses Nicholas about who has had access to these records, before Eugene came on board, he cracks and fesses up. He did it, under the coercion of Richard Maxwell (people usually call him by both of his names. I don’t know why). The motives aren’t complicated. Students wanted to pay for better grades, Richard Maxwell wanted money, and Nicholas didn’t want to be booted back to the orphanage.

This creates a serious moral dilemma for Eugene. On the one hand, if he leaves the grades alone, he is pretty much failing the one job he has. But if he turns the pair in, a vulnerable kid will leave the one place that has felt sort of like home in a long time. Eugene knows too much about what that feels like to put him through that. Not to mention that, as a test case, Nicholas’s success has implications for other kids.

Then Eugene realizes there is a way around this. All he has to do is hack back into the system, and change the grades back. The wrong is righted, and nobody would dare bring it up, because they would only incriminate themselves. The only problem is Richard Maxwell, who could give Nicholas a falsified bad report, simply for the sake of revenge. This prospect terrifies Nicholas, but Eugene swears to protect him. If Richard Maxwell starts telling lies, Eugene will fight them. Nicholas decides to trust Eugene, and they set to work fixing the grades.

Seriously, Eugene and Nicholas are too pure for this world.

Turns out, Mr. Burgermeister has been privately monitoring students’ grades, based on rumors that somebody is changing them for money. Unfortunately, he started this monitoring too late to catch it the first time around, but soon enough to catch Eugene changing them back. Which, as he doesn’t know that Eugene was actually changing them back, looks a lot like Eugene was in on the whole scam. And the only way to clear his name is to turn on Nicholas.

Eugene can’t do that. He confesses the crime to the school board… which happens to include Whit. Now, all of a sudden, Whit decides to do a more thorough investigation. He uncovers the fact that discrepancies on the records show up before Eugene’s arrival, and that his tampering seems to have corrected, rather than exacerbated the errors. While the rest of the board reviews these notes, Whit goes to talk to Eugene. Eugene says that he is taking responsibility for his department, which is what he learned from being fired at Whit’s End. But Whit is still not convinced of Eugene’s guilt. He goes over the information he found, and then is interrupted by Nicholas.

Nicholas, cinnamon roll that he is, refuses to let Eugene take the blame for his own mistakes. He makes a full confession, including implicating Richard Maxwell.

Richard Maxwell is fired, but they tell him they won’t press charges. Um… why? Seriously, why?!? His behavior was not only corrupt and criminal, but it honestly qualifies as child abuse. What’s worse, he does not seem remotely remorseful. He even brags about having another job lined up. There is no reason given for the college letting him off the hook, except that the show wants to be free to use him as a recurring character.

Nicholas gets a light reprimand and probation, but the program is safe and, now that he doesn’t have a sociopath controlling his future, he’ll probably pass that probation just fine. As for Eugene, Whit declares that these events have proven that he has learned his lesson, and offers him his old job back.

Wait, what?

Okay, if you haven’t read the previous episode review, I highly recommend that you do so now. But in summation, here’s why Eugene was fired; he did exactly what he was told to do.

No, I’m serious. Whit had a secret computer room in Whit’s End, and it included programs with government secrets, because in addition to being an all-knowing independently wealthy ice cream shop owner, he is a badass spy. And like all badass spies, he keeps confidential materials in his Jesus-themed Chuck-E-Cheese. You know, where kids come to play.

Whit showed Eugene the computer room, so he could use it to do the few legitimate programs that were necessary for running the shop. He made Eugene promise to not show the computer room to anybody, and only use it in the way he had been authorized. Eugene did not break those rules at any point. The only thing he did wrong was, one time, leave a door open, causing Connie to accidentally see and learn about the computer room. Later on, she opened one of the confidential programs, also on accident.

If Whit didn’t want this to happen, he shouldn’t have put government secrets in a Jesus-Chuck-E-Cheese!

If Eugene had committed a security breach at Whit’s End, then yeah, this would probably indicate that he had learned a valuable lesson about responsibility and whatnot. They are clearly going for the whole message of “sometimes people screw up, but when they prove that they’ve made a real commitment to not screwing up in the same way again, they deserve to be forgiven.” That’s a great message! I am one hundred percent behind it. In fact, if you listened to it on it’s own, you would probably project a story that better fits the intended narrative onto the previous episode. And therein lies the one real problem. It frames the conflict in such a way as to rewrite prior events. Growing up, I remembered this saga in a weird way. I remembered the message of “make mistakes but learn from them and you’ll be forgiven” and projected it onto a situation where an authority figure mishandled his own power and then blamed his friends and employees for it.

Of all the episodes in this whole Applesauce saga, this is probably the best. There are some troubling implications here, but they are mostly the fault of the episode that came before, and also the episodes that come immediately after. I will get to those next time, starting with the one where Connie learns her own dubious lessons.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Everything about Eugene and Nicholas’ relationship is adorable.

Worst Part: Richard Maxwell not ending up in jail.

Story Rating: Overall pretty good. Eugene’s conflict is an interesting one, you care about the characters, and the nerdy dynamic between Eugene and Nicholas makes this one entertaining as well. A

Moral Rating: As a standalone episode about justice triumphing and the bad guys getting caught, it’s a pretty standard feel good kids story. B+

The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu

Paper Menagerie

What It’s About

A series of sci-fi and fantasy shorts that explore humanity’s past, future and soul.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I love the idea of alternate history. I want to better understand history, and I think a powerful tool in that understanding is imagining what things might have been like, had a few details turned out differently. Unfortunately have seen two alternate history stories that I thought were good. One is the mockumentary C. S. A. :The Confederate States of America, which is one of the few “what if the South won the Civil War” takes that is not blatantly southern apologist, but is instead equal parts satire of southern apologism, and chilling dystopia on par with 1984. The other one is “A Brief History of the TransPacific Tunnel,” the thirteenth story in this book. It is equal parts an intimate redemption story, and a complex, immaculately researched look at the interwoven threads of history. In a handful of pages, it speaks more profoundly about the intersection of politics, economics and social movements than most textbooks. Without sacrificing impact for subtlety, or subtlety for impact, it raises unsettling questions about effects vs intentions, sacrifices, and the costs of progress. And while exposing humanity at it’s worst, it also exposes raw, brutal hope.

If this book only had a couple of stories on that level of excellence, that would be reason enough for a recommendation. But honestly, every one is on that level; quality characterization, beautifully crisp language, Black Mirror-level thought provoking while still lovely and cautiously optimistic. What’s still more staggering is the sheer diversity of stories. There’s a sweet, personal coming of age story about a world where everyone’s soul manifests as a physical object, and a young woman who must carefully protect her ice cube heart. There’s a tense cyberpunk detective noir where a PI hunts a serial killer with a bizarre MO. There’s a strangely poignant encyclopedia entry on the writing systems of interplanetary species.

The stories in these books have swept up Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards like so many crumbs, and it’s no surprise. Ken Liu takes on every subgenre of science fiction and fantasy and masters them all.

Content Warnings

Some stories discuss racism or violent events. For the most part, they are at most moderately intense, but two, The Literomancer and The Man Who Ended History, have especially graphic torture scenes. In both cases, the torture is completely necessary to the points the stories are making. The latter is especially important because it is an accurate account of historical events. But man, it is rough.

Shadowshaper, by Daniel Jose Older

Shadowshaper

What It’s About

A secret society of magicians in New York City, who use murals to channel spiritual power.

Why I Think You’d Like It

As I try to describe this book, the word that keeps coming to mind is “smart.” It’s a book that fits neatly into a genre niche, specifically the YA Chosen One Coming-of-age-while-exploring-a-hidden-magical-world niche, without any pretense. It knows what it is and it means to be what it is. And yet, with every trope and character type and turning point, you get something that’s just a little bit more creative, more thought out, and more authentic than the usual fare.

Take the old cryptic elders trope. Authors rely on this to avoid long stretches of tensionless exposition. Instead, they make you wait for information and draw out the suspense, so that when it’s time for an infodump you’re invested. Unfortunately, their stories don’t always justify the withholding of information. Sometimes it’s even out of character (why do these wise old mentors never educate their protagonists? Isn’t that literally their entire job?). Still, this trope serves a narrative purpose, and we, the audience, just sigh and go along with it because we know we don’t actually want a big string of exposition in chapter three.

But in Shadowshaper, the author gets the radical idea that maybe mentors withhold information because of character flaws. Maybe they have anxieties and gaps in their understanding and even prejudices. This creates a far more satisfying explanation, as well as adding dimension to the supporting cast, and forcing the protagonist to be proactive in sorting through the conflicting, piecemeal information. This turns into quests and conflicts that have real emotional weight when they are finally resolved. One smart decision, and not only has an annoying cliche been avoided, but every resulting plot thread has become just that must stronger.

This kind of thing keeps happening. I know what kind of story this is, and so I know where it’s going, but in getting there it keeps taking a path that is better on every level. The result is something that feels very polished and satisfying. Something that aims to be the best at what it is, and succeeds.

If you like that YA Chosen One coming-of-age-while-exploring-a-hidden-magical-world subgenre, you’ll like this book. If you used to like that genre, but went off it because of too many lazy cliches, you’ll love this book.

Content Warnings

Not much to warn about. There’s some scary fantasy monsters and personal explorations of identity that, since the protagonist is a Black Hispanic girl, dip into all the bigoted isms, but author knows how to acknowledge real world issues without either trivializing them, or letting them overwhelm and bog down the adventure. Like I said, it’s a smart book.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Godless Heathen: A Bite of Applesauce

Full disclosure; I hate the whole Garden of Eden story. I hate it because it takes this whole idea of sin and redemption, which is beautiful, and frames it in terms of “the smallest of disobediences has made you massively suck forever.” Which, you know, not so beautiful. It’s the broccoli in the General Tso’s shrimp.

I’m, uh, a pescatarian who loves the General Tso’s sauce but hates broccoli. So, you know, I order the shrimp or bean curd instead of the chicken, and then I have to spend some time picking out all the broccoli. That hopefully clarifies my choice of analogy.

Anyway, I’m now tackling AIO’s episodes on forgiveness, and I think a great place to start would be the Applesauce arc. It was AIO’s first major ongoing story, and set up the framework for most of their other arcs, so it’s good to get to it sooner or later. Plus, it revolves thematically around a very crudely done adaptation of the Garden of Eden.

Connie opens the episode by speculating about all the changes Whit is making to Whit’s End. He has apparently been tinkering all over the shop, to the point that he has probably ripped out and rewired every outlet and altered every gadget. Yet he has been very mysterious about his plans. Eugene has decided to be entirely incurious about this. He says that if Whit needed them to know, he would keep them in the loop. He even implies that Connie is being nosy and distrustful.

Frankly, we are already off to a shaky start. Just imagine your boss was rewiring your entire workplace and wouldn’t tell you why. Not even the vaguest hint. Such an extensive and time consuming change would impact you, and it’s pretty reasonable to expect to know why this is happening.

That shaky start gets even shakier when Whit comes in, pointedly invites Eugene to come take a look at something, and leaves Connie to watch the ice cream counter.

Whit is, of course, about to let Eugene in on everything he has been working on. First he takes Eugene to the office, and points out the bookshelf. The bookshelf has, among other things, a copy of The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis. In the back of this book is a key. The key fits in the lock that is next to the bookshelf.

This is not a new addition. Whit has always had a random lock in the wall next to the bookshelf in his office. Um, okay. I feel like a random person might walk in, see that, and think, “I wonder if there’s a key somewhere here that will open that lock and unveil an interesting secret,” but okay.

Anyway, the key causes the bookshelf to roll back and unveil a secret computer room. It is “state of the art,” which means we have a voice activated AI named Mabel. She’s exactly like every other AI in every other show that isn’t specifically about AIs developing homicidal self-awareness.

Whit’s big project has been hooking up every feature of Whit’s End to a computer that lets them see stats on what is being used and in what ways, with what frequency. It also provides some remote repairs, including emergency master switches. As Eugene is looking through the various programs, he notes “Applesauce,” which is entirely unfamiliar to him. Whit says he can’t tell Eugene about that one, but it is important that he never use it or open it or tell anyone about it. Which is why it is on a computer in a kid’s club, in a secret room that is perfectly hidden except for the weird giveaway lock in the wall.

Oh, and in addition to not telling anyone about Applesauce, Eugene should also not tell anybody about the computer room, including Connie.

Cut to Eugene using the computer room to shut down the trains when Whit is out, and Connie walking in on him. Ooops.

Connie is ecstatic to finally know what Whit was doing. She also thinks the computer looks cool as hell. Eugene is massively condescending. He mansplains that Mabel is artificially intelligent, and then switches to mocking her for knowing nothing about AI. Connie says that she does know something about artificial intelligence. She knows that it is kind of intelligence, but artificial.

Well, she’s got you there, Eugene.

I just want to make a quick reference back to this episode. A major plot point was that Whit never gave Connie computer training or responsibilities because she never seemed interested in technology. But here she is, clearly fascinated by a computer room. But she doesn’t get to learn about them. The one male role model in her life has intentionally shut her out, while the other is mocking her interest. Of course, in other episodes she isn’t as interested, but in the real world people who are often picked on for showing interest in something will then stop showing interest in it. So…. hashtag feminism.

Eugene shoos Connie out and swears her to secrecy, but not before she notices Applesauce and is intrigued by the word. He says she isn’t supposed to know about that either. Now, this may just be my perspective, but given that the rest of his dialog was also very belittling and “you shouldn’t know anything about that,” I didn’t think he impressed on her that there is something especially private about whatever the hell Applesauce is. It came across more like the fifth or sixth in a string of shitty condescensions.

In the next scene, Connie is starting work before either Eugene or Whit have shown up, and the trains won’t turn back on. She gets one of the older kids to watch the front while she goes to turn the trains on. Although she hasn’t been trained, she remembers how Eugene turned the trains on, and deduces from that how to turn them back on.

Again, not incompetent or uninterested in computers. Just not given the opportunities to learn how to use them. It’s also worth emphasizing that, despite the fact that Eugene and Connie are both sometimes the only one present at Whit’s End, Eugene was the only one taught how to use Mabel and the computer room.

Anyway, yay Connie! You figured out the scary technology despite the male patriarchy closing you out for no good reason! Good job performing your literal job!

Once she’s done with the trains, she totally doesn’t turn on the Applesauce program, just to see what it is.

Hang on, that sounds like sarcasm. Let me try that again.

Connie explicitly does not attempt to turn on the Applesauce program. What she does is wonder aloud about what it does, and even gets a little insecure about whether or not it might have something to do with her. But it’s just normal human shit. When somebody is keeping a secret from you, the first place your mind goes is that it’s a secret about you, no matter how much of a leap that is. She doubts Whit, but ultimately she decides to trust him, and not open the Applesauce program.

Mabel mishears her, and loads the Applesauce program. Look, we’ve all gotten into little misunderstandings with voice recognition software, and I’m saying that in 2018. This episode came out in 1989. This is so not on Connie.

She tries to turn it off. She can’t. Eugene shows up and tries to turn it off. He can’t. The program makes Whit’s End go haywire, and then when neither of them can give a password, Mabel shuts the whole shop down.

Whit shows up hours later. He hears their explanations, but doesn’t care that neither of them did anything intentionally damaging. All he can do is whine about their lack of trust in him. And then fire them both.

Aaaaaand that’s the end of the episode! No, literally, it ends on the cliffhanger of their immediate termination of employment, for, um, let’s see if I got this straight. Eugene got walked in on while doing a thing Whit explicitly trained and authorized him to do. He should have closed the door, but then, if Whit was going to have top secret computer rooms he should have maybe made them less obvious. Connie later used her initiative to fix a problem she was not trained to fix, and was then misunderstood by an overly literal AI. Whit knows this is what happened. Whit thinks this is reason enough to fire them.

In case you are unfamiliar with the Garden of Eden, the basic story is that God gives Adam and Eve a perfect paradise, with one tree they must not eat from. Eve flunks this with a little encouragement from a serpent, Adam flunks this when she points out that apples are tasty, and God throws all three of them out of paradise for not following his one rule. There are two interpretations of what the whole tree thing was about. One is that it was an arbitrary test of obedience, on which the entire fate of the universe hung. The other is that there were cosmic implications behind both the rule and the fact that the tree was a part of the Garden of Eden to begin with. The former I think establishes God as an abusive parental figure. The latter… still extremely harsh, but you know, I work in education with small children. I know how it is when you don’t have time to explain all the reasons why the rules are the rules, but it’s still legitimately important for the kids to follow it, and just trust that you have reasons. Again, pretty harsh for violation of a rule that they couldn’t adequately understand, but even with how much I hate this story I can concede this one little point to team God.

But this story sure as shit ain’t that. First, Whit was perfectly capable of saying to both Connie and Eugene, “hey, there’s a computer room back here. Mostly I want you to leave it alone, but you can use it for these few things if necessary.” Second, if he was going to keep it a secret, he could have done an actually decent job. Third, most of what was on the computer didn’t need to be a big-ass secret in the first place! It’s just basic stats and an emergency shutdown! Connie not only could have been let in on that, but she should have been. This should have all been on a regular computer in Whit’s regular office, which both Eugene and Connie could have used if needed.

Applesauce is a weird feature of the AIO universe. Whit is, of course, in addition to being an entrepreneur and eternally wise old man, an independently wealthy computer genius and superspy. I’m not exaggerating. The Whitaker family has government ties and periodically goes to do epic spy shit. In these spy-centric episodes, Applesauce comes up frequently. What it does is never clarified. Frequently it helps sabotage, but also in one episode it helps develop a scary bioweapon, and recurring villain Dr. Regius Blackgaard is often on the hunt for it. According to AIOwiki, “it has been described as powerful enough to take over the world.” All of which begs the question – deep breath – WHY THE EVERLOVING FUCK IS THIS PART OF WHIT’S END!!!!!!?????????

Whit’s End is supposed to be a safe place for kids. Applesauce is a scary government program with apocalyptic potential. These two things should not coincide.

The allusions to the Garden of Eden are not lost on your average AIO viewer; there’s a forbidden fruit, a man and a woman fuck up but really the woman is the bad one, both get cast out of paradise as punishment for their sins. We aren’t supposed to question Whit’s decision making here. We are supposed to be disappointed with Eugene and Connie, but especially Connie. There’s not enough hand flailing in the world to communicate how fucked up that is.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Connie deciding that she can be an independent person and fix the trains herself, because she is a smart young woman who cares about her job and responsibilities, and fuck the old guys who won’t teach her to use the big scary computers.

Worst Part: Whit. Just… Whit, generally.

Story Rating: Fuck this shit.

Moral Rating: Fuuuuuuck. Thiiiiiis. Shiiiiit. FFFFF-

The Wives of Henry VIIIth, by Antonia Fraser

The Wives of Henry VIII

What It’s About

The lives and deaths of the women who were, in some cases very briefly, queens of England under Henry the Eighth.

Why I Think You’d Like It

The aim of this book was to take these women out of Henry’s shadow and examine them on their own terms. This goal is met. Before this, I could barely name the six wives, even though they have only three names between them (spelling variations aside, there’s one Jane, two Annes and three Katherines). Now I feel almost as though I have met them; shook their hands, attended their weddings, been there to cry at their tragic ends.

It also does so much more. From reading this book, you learn about the state of women of their time, about medicine and childbirth and the compex politics of noble marriages. You get the full story of the social and political revolutions that lead to the formation of the Church of England. You gain insights into the future reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, by understanding the turmoil they grew up in. Everything about this book will enrich your understanding of that moment in history where we transitioned from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, by better understanding the human beings who were right there at the turning of the wheels.

I especially appreciate the attention to source material. My biggest turn off, when it comes to history of marginalized peoples, is the desire to fill in the gaps with speculations flavored by modern ideas, especially when those create a more digestible interpretation of events. While many things stay the same throughout the twists and turns of history, so much is dependent on culture. If we don’t at least attempt to understand historical figures on their own terms, we will inevitably do them a disservice. Antonia Fraser keeps the focus, as much as possible, on the historical records, and on representing these women as they represented themselves. Where the records make room for multiple interpretations, she explains those as well. The result is a richer, more complex, more honest book.

If you’re interested in either feminism, history or politics, you’ll find this book detailed, well-researched and absolutely fascinating.

Content Warnings

I think in this case the content warnings are true trigger* warnings. The book’s tone is fairly clean and academic, but even so these women lived through some truly horrible events. Katherine of Aragon was gaslit during the divorce proceedings. Anne Boleyn was falsely accused of witchcraft and beheaded. Jane Seymour died from complications after childbirth. Anna of Cleves was bullied, manipulated and stranded in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language. Katherine Howard was groomed to be sexually appealing from a far too young age, and then that very behavior got her beheaded. Katherine Parr got off fairly well, but after Henry died she did marry an asshole who groomed Princess Elizabeth for sexual abuse, so there’s that. All the language is fairly academic and well below most people’s threshold for offense, but if you’re in a place where that might trigger a relapse, maybe put this on an “after I’ve done some healing” list.

*In case you haven’t read my rant, trigger warnings are not for people who are easily offended, they are for people with medical conditions, especially PTSD.

China Dolls, by Lisa See

China Dolls

What It’s About

Three best friends try to make it big in show business, despite anti-Asian prejudice in World War II.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Personally, I’m a sucker for old school Hollywood glamour. I know that world was full of lies, exploitation, and hierarchies of privilege, but goddamn, it was a great aesthetic. And, of course, the best works use that image while acknowledging the seedy underbelly. All About Eve, Mildred Pierce, Sunset Boulevard… that’s my jam right there.

This book captures that aesthetic, and combines it with detailed, research into an underrepresented and overlooked part of that world. The author is a mixed racial woman who was strongly influenced, both in life and her writing, by her Chinese grandparents. She based her portrayal of 1940s Chinatown heavily on her family’s recollections, and the result is a fantastic, fresh setting for a classic story.

I loved the dynamic between the three protagonists; all good hearted, all wounded in their own ways, all with flaws that balanced out when they worked together but escalated all too quickly when conflict was introduced. The thing you want from this story is to see them all work it out and get back together. Of course I won’t tell you if that happens or not, but the writing is completely successful in making you ache to see that.

Can somebody make a movie of this? I would watch the shit out of it.

Content Warnings

Frankly, all the things. You’ve got your racism, your sexual content, your alcoholism and depression, your physical abuse, your homophobia… it’s an offensive content buffet.

But man, if you’re going to read an offensive book, this is a great one to read. Obviously not if you want to avoid any of those things for mental health reasons. If you’re in need of actual trigger warnings for any of that, I recommend putting this on a “when I’m in a better place” shelf.

If, on the other hand, you are someone who is passionate about those topics, and wants to see them explored well in a book that is also very entertaining in its own right, this is the book for you. Full disclosure; characters are faithful to the perspectives and prejudices of their time, and don’t apologize for using un-PC language or embracing Hollywood stereotypes to get ahead. That doesn’t mean those issues aren’t addressed, but that they unfold naturally over the course of the plot. There were a lot of times I was worried about where she was going with a particular issue, but I pressed on, and I’m so glad I did.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as a Godless Heathen: Courage to Stand

This has been one of the hardest episodes to review. I loved this episode as a kid. It was one of my favorite go to repeats. I knew from the day I started this project that I wanted to review it. But when I put it in as an adult, my opinions on it kept changing. First I was shocked by how bland and boring it was. Then I was angry at how simplistic it was, and noticed a lot of the toxic dynamics that were bothering me about other AIO episodes. Then I felt sympathetic to some aspects of the messages that I thought were aiming for something good, but definitely did not reach their target. In the end, this had to go with the meta-moralizing episodes. What is interesting here isn’t the story or the message itself, but the flaws in how they present the message, and how that ties into AIO’s approach as a whole.

Anyway, this episode opens with Robyn Jacobs talking to Connie. She is bummed about some recent events, and Connie is playing sympathetic bartender therapist. But with hot chocolate, obviously. Robyn opens the story with cheerleader tryouts. She isn’t actually that interested in cheerleading, but she wants to hang out with the cool kids. Connie nods knowingly and says that she once joined a drama club for the same reason.

Afterward the auditions, two cheerleaders, Michelle and Shannon, complimented her on her performance, but told her that being good isn’t enough. Robyn assumes they are talking about showing up for practice. But really, they are talking about the importance of being cool. If you aren’t cool, you don’t fit in with the cool kids, and that’s not cool.

Cause, you know, subtlety.

Then, out of the blue, Shannon invites her to a party. Robyn says she will come, but also asks her Mom to be sure. Her Mom is okay with it, but she insists on making Robyn ask if Shannon’s parents will be there to chaperone the party. She uses that word repeatedly, “chaperone,” and makes it clear that without a chaperone, Robyn can’t go.

Shannon translates the word “chaperone” as “babysitter.” Which is not strictly accurate. Babysitters watch people who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions because they are extremely young. Chaperones watch people who can’t be trusted to make their own decisions because they are extremely female and unmarried.

Given that these characters seem to be about 15, I’ll let you debate in the comments which word is more appropriate. I’m genuinely undecided. For me, that age is just on the edge where I would understand both the decision to cut loose and let your kids make mistakes, and the decision to still keep an eye on them. But I do think the word choice says a lot about where AIO is coming from. Their fears are not just about safety, but corruption. They are less afraid that fifteen year olds will accidentally burn the house down, more afraid that fifteen year olds will have consensual sex with other fifteen year olds.

Shannon tells Robyn if her Mom needs to hear that there will be chaperones, then she should tell her Mom that the party would be chaperoned. Robyn completely misses the fact that Shannon never actually says her parents will be there.

There is a whole other bit of dialog between Robyn and her Mom about the importance of chaperoning, but it’s sort of hard to summarize… or rather, it’s too easy to summarize. Mrs. Jacobs wants chaperones, because chaperones are important. So important that we will say the word until it does not sound like a word anymore. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone. Make sure your wild teen party has one. They specifically create a space where Robyn’s Mom could be more specific about her concerns, and they are intentionally vague. I took a dig at the old fashioned implications of the word choice, but I do think there’s something deeper behind it. Robyn, Shannon and Michelle seem to be around fifteen. I’ve known fifteen year olds who didn’t need a babysitter and fifteen year olds who definitely did. But Robyn has pretty good judgment most of the time. This isn’t about fear that Robyn might burn the house down, or even that she might not have the sense to get out of the house if someone else sets it on fire. It’s about the possibility that this will be the kind of party where fifteen year olds have consensual sex with other fifteen year olds.

But of course, they can’t discuss that openly. That would mean mentioning the existence of sex. So they just say chaperone an absurd amount of times. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone. Chaperone.

Anyway, Shannon and Michelle let Robyn hang out with them for the better part of a week. Mostly this is awesome, but once Robyn turns down a movie date because she goes to church every Wednesday night. Wednesday night services are a common part of AIO core cast life. They mostly come up to either A. induce mockery from non-Christian side characters, so as to remind us all of how persecuted Christians are, or B. allow a major Christian character to skip those services, therefore indicating that they are heading down a Slippery Slope (TM), without making them do something so shocking as skipping church on Sunday. Anyway, this is the former case, although Robyn notes that they find it weird more than actively mock it.

My perspective on this when I was a kid; “Wow, what complex characters! Even though they are evil cool kids, they aren’t actually picking on Robyn, and are giving her a chance to keep hanging out with the group. They aren’t rejecting her out of hand like so many non-Christians would. How interesting!”

My perspective on this now; “Wow, these characters behaved like actual non-Christians do, for like an entire three seconds.”

But then that realism is smashed when Michelle takes Robyn aside for a talk later. She delivers a sinister speech about how she used to go to church twice a week, but when she joined the cheerleading squad, she stopped. Not because she disliked it, but because Shannon has some weird, creepy influence on you, where without her directly teasing, you just stop wanting to do Jesus stuff. The final message is that Robyn needs to think about her cheerleading priorities, and how she will come across at the party.

I hate that. I hate that so much. Like, I think they were aiming for Regina George in Shannon’s characterization, but somehow they landed on the hypnotoad.

Hypnotoad
“Don’t go to church. Stay home. Watch Futurama.”

The day of the party they all talk about their plans, and Shannon brings up fitting in again. Once she has convinced Robyn to dress up, so as to really impress everybody, she casually mentions how she has enough time to fix any damage before their parents come back from out of town.

Wha-a-a-a? Her parents are out of town? Who could have possibly seen that coming?

Robyn refuses to defy her parents and go without a parental chaperone. Shannon promptly drops the invitation, and announces that Robyn absolutely cannot be a cheerleader because she isn’t cool enough.

And that’s why Robyn is so upset. Connie commiserates, and tells her how in the drama club, she was forced to play “raunchy” characters. Only those characters, nothing else. Connie played along for a while, despite feeling like it was wrong, and then one day she quit. This lost her all of her cool friends, and everything was sad, but then she had some personal revelation about the value of being herself. This bit also makes me very mad. I’m fine with Connie not wanting to play “raunchy” characters, whatever that means. Any drama club that pressures you into only playing characters you are deeply uncomfortable with is a shit club. What makes me angry is that, growing up, I thought this was realistic. It’s not. Most non-Christians don’t go out of their way to make Christians uncomfortable. I actually joined several acting clubs and classes. None of them pressured any students into taking roles they felt wrong about. One even let me tweak some dialog that I thought was mildly blasphemous. The “evil corrupting non-Christians” portrayal honestly fed into my anxiety, for no reason at all.

As I said earlier, most of these meta-moralizing episodes don’t have bad morals. I think it’s fine, for example, for Moms to decide they want their fifteen year old daughters to not be partying with college boys, for fifteen year old daughters to decide a trusting relationship with their mother is more important than the popular crowd, or for anybody to decide they aren’t comfortable stepping into a particular role, theatrical or social. I genuinely applaud Connie and Robyn for taking a path that felt harder, but was more true to their values. This episode is well titled; that took courage.

What I don’t like is the simplicity of the moral battle. This is all or nothing. It also feels like Shannon’s specific endgame was to separate Robyn from her beliefs, just as it seems implied that the drama club had a vested interest in making Connie feel immodest. It ties into a narrative, common to Evangelical circles, that the secular world is devoted to tearing them down… mostly people are actually pretty chill, so long as you aren’t constantly talking down to them.

This ties into the second part of Connie’s speech. She talks about how everything can seem important in the moment, but moments pass. Decisions have larger implications than just how they make us feel right now. Again, I’m all on board with that, as far as it goes, but then she starts talking about heaven and hell. She literally says that, for Christians, the present moment has implications for all of eternity. In other words, Robyn’s decision to quit the cheerleading squad is the kind of thing that can ultimately affect who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.

That’s a ridiculously heavy perspective to take. And in some ways, I think there is something a little beautiful in it; the idea of small actions having rippling consequences for good. That’s how I took it as a kid, and I think that’s a lot of why I liked this episode so much. I used it to tell myself that by not watching a movie or using a swearword or wearing low cut clothing, I was making a difference in who was going to heaven and who was going to hell. Not just for myself, but potentially witnessing to someone who was hellbound, or weakening the influence of Satan on earth. I’m not exaggerating when I say most of my childhood was spent in a mentality where swearing to not ever drink or party meant I was Frodo dragging the ring to Mordor, or the Pevensies battling the White Witch. I’d add in Harry Potter standing up to Voldemort, but you know, not reading Harry Potter was one of things I did, as a good Christian.

I don’t know how to adequately convey how exhausting that pressure becomes. The fear that an immodest dress and a dance to a raunchy song might make you the Edmund Pevensie or the Boromir of eternity’s story. The idea that an impure thought might make you a weak link in the epic of the cosmos.

The creation of that pressure is not an unintentional side effect of some poorly chosen words. It is the intentional aim of this story.

The story ends when next week Michelle says she was inspired by Robyn, and decided not to go to the party either. As it turned out, Shannon’s brother from college showed up and things got “out of hand.” Neighbors called the police about the noise and everybody who went got in trouble. Michelle says she wants to hang out more with Robyn, and Robyn invites her to church. This is the confirmation of Connie’s message; Robyn’s choices created ripples that might now mean Michelle won’t go to hell.

Final Ratings

Best Part: The one real attempt at a joke in this episode is when Mrs. Jacobs is distracted from the party conversation by an absurd amount of scratches on her coffee table. She asks whether people have been using sandpaper as coasters or tap dancing on it with cleats. It’s…. kind of funny? Like I said, really bland episode.

Worst Part: This episode has so little content, it actually ends with clips from three other episodes where characters stood up for their beliefs. Yeah, it ends with a fucking clip show. They aren’t even short clips. It’s about an eighteen minute episode with three minutes of clip. For people so convinced they are making a difference in eternity, they are real goddamn lazy.

Story Rating: Unless you completely buy into Shannon as an agent of the devil and Robyn’s decision as steps on the road to hell, it is completely  boring and predictable. C-

Moral Rating: The idea of being true to your values instead of blindly following others is great, but again, the whole context means this idea is under-explored. It is focused on pushing a simplified look at non-Christians, as well as enforcing its own kind of conformity, rather than really helping kids make authentic decisions. D-